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5 Books on Intelligence Analysis to Level Up Your Critical Thinking Skills

The failures and scandals tend to define the public image of intelligence analysts. But beyond the politics of it lies a hidden field of expertise with a fascinating body of literature. What’s barely known is how much thought and skill go into creating high-stakes analyses and assessments. I’ve put together a list of five books on intelligence analysis I can recommend, for the (budding) intel analyst, or those who simply want to level up their thinking skills.

Each book is full of hands-on knowledge, tools and techniques about the art of making sound judgements and decisions. They cover a variety of fields such as national security, criminal and business intelligence. But before diving into them, let’s briefly clear up what intelligence analysis is.

5 Books on Intelligence Analysis

Broadly speaking, intelligence analysis deals with knowledge and foreknowledge. Analysts collect and evaluate data and information to come to actionable judgements. The so-called intelligence cycle is a popular way to model and illustrate this practice.

As two of the authors featured below point out, the goal is “to reveal the truth about matters that are hidden or not easily accessible” (Charles Vandepeer). It’s also to make predictions about what might happen in the future. An aura of secrecy surrounds an analyst’s effort to “illuminate the unknown” (Richards Heuer) and turn ambiguity into as much certainty as possible.

That doesn’t seem too far off from what most of us are trying to accomplish every day. There’s plenty we can learn from professionals who think for a living. Here are five intelligence analysis books to level up your critical thinking skills.

1. Applied Thinking for Intelligence Analysis

Once we realise that people can interpret the same information differently, it highlights the importance of getting back to the source documents and reading them for ourselves. Wherever possible, we should look at primary data for ourselves rather than rely on already-analysed information. Where the time or access prevents this, then there is the risk of extrapolating misunderstandings and misinterpretations or of having to accept others’ judgements at face value.

Charles Vandepeer

Build the foundational skills and knowledge of an analyst with Applied Thinking for Intelligence Analysis. Author Charles Vandepeer is a senior lecturer in intelligence analysis. The importance of critical thinking, i.e. deliberate reflective reasoning, is a thread that runs through the whole book.

It’s the perfect introduction if you seek to understand how analysts think, how they define problems, plan their research, analyse data and make predictions. More broadly, I highly recommend it to anyone who has to make sound judgments and decisions on a daily basis.

2. Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis

It is unrealistic to expect that analysts can always be correct. Regardless of the processes they employ, analysts make errors and fail. […] Critical thinking mitigates these by providing means to assess errors in reasoning as they occur and before they become systemic failures. Such a meta-cognitive approach to the analytic process helps keep it under active review at the highest levels.

David T. Moore

Explore the crossroads of Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis with this classic by David T. Moore. Moore makes a strong case for the significance of critical thinking in the intel profession. He sees the analyst at the centre of both the successes and the failures of the past. A culture of critical thinking, so his argument goes, could’ve made a difference.

Moore starts by explaining what critical thinking is from an intel perspective. He then takes a deep dive into a case study of the Cuban missile crisis; showing how a more reflective approach to analysing Soviet missile deployments could’ve cut through the opponent’s deception. Finally, Moore details how critical thinking can be taught in an organisation and what the ultimate benefits are.

3. Scientific Methods of Inquiry for Intelligence Analysis

Tom Clancy was queried about his infallible knowledge of some of the obscure technical and scientific details contained in his espionage novels. He is reported to have denied having access to classified defense information, but instead pointed out what others have discovered – it could all be found in the open source literature.

Hank Prunckun

Learn the analytic skills and methods intelligence analysts employ every day. Written as a student-friendly book, Scientific Methods of Inquiry for Intelligence Analysis by Hank Prunckun is a true treasure trove. Particularly for anyone interested in qualitative analyses. Each chapter comes with study questions and learning activities to solidify and apply your new knowledge and skills.

Which open and covert sources are available to an analyst? How do you prepare a vulnerability assessment? What’s the best way to make recommendations for decision-making? Prunckun covers the whole array of an analyst’s job. Though, it’s equally interesting if you only want to understand the complex work of intelligence professionals. Tom Clancy was correct. It’s astounding what’s available in the open-source literature.

4. Psychology of Intelligence Analysis

We cannot see cause and effect in the same sense that we see a desk or a tree. Even when we observe one billiard ball striking another and then watch the previously stationary ball begin to move, we are not perceiving cause and effect. The conclusion that one ball caused the other to move results only from a complex process of inference, not from direct sensory perception.

Richards J. Heuer

Study up on how our minds work with this intelligence analysis book. Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer can be considered a timeless classic. The former intelligence analyst takes us on a journey through our minds from the perspective of the intel community. How we think about thinking, perceive the world and memorise what we observe.

Heuer introduces a variety of thinking tools and strategies to come to sound analytical judgements. These include the questioning of our assumptions and the analysis of competing hypotheses. Though, no book on sensemaking would be complete without a chapter on cognitive biases and how they can hinder our judgement. Heuer’s work was foundational for later books on so-called structured analytic techniques. The method of Deception Detection is just one example.

5. Become a Problem-Solving Crime Analyst

Whenever you analyse a problem or think about solutions, try to discover the reasons why the crimes are committed – not the distant social or psychological causes, but the immediate benefits of the crime for the offenders involved. A radical critique of criminology pointed out 30 years ago that bank robbers are not propelled through the door of the bank by their genes; they rob banks because they want to get rich.

Ronald V. Clarke

Find out how to Become a Problem-Solving Crime Analyst with this book by Ronald V. Clarke and John Eck. The authors take you through 55 well-illustrated steps. Read about the fundamentals of policing and criminology, why you should always think thief and how crime analysts know they made a difference.

Granted, this practical guide is much more specialised. You may never go hunt for actual criminals. Still, it’s a great addition to your reading list if you want to understand the analytic side of law enforcement better. And who knows, perhaps you’ll learn something you can apply in everyday life.

BONUS: A Tradecraft Primer

Mental models are critical to allowing individuals to process what otherwise would be an incomprehensible volume of information. Yet, they can cause analysts to overlook, reject, or forget important incoming or missing information that is not in accord with their assumptions and expectations. Seasoned analysts may be more susceptible to these mind-set problems as a result of their expertise and past success in using time-tested mental models.

US Government

Learn how to challenge assumptions, reduce uncertainty and make better decisions with the Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis. Prepared by the US Government, it shows you how to use diagnostic, contrarian and imaginative thinking methods to wrestle with difficult questions. While some are sourced from academia, you’ll also find methods unique to the intel profession.

Apart from techniques such as What if? Analysis or Red Teaming, the tradecraft primer also features methods found in a publication on structured analytical techniques I covered previously in my list of five critical thinking books. Despite both their origins and intended audience, the skills are applicable beyond the intel context.

Closing Thoughts

Intelligence analysts cannot afford failures. At the same time, they work in an environment in which their work is never truly finished. Assessments invariably change as new data and information become available. The need to make highly accurate predictions while maintaining a sense of intellectual humility is part of what makes this field so fascinating.

You don’t have to deal with high-stakes national security situations to find value in intelligence analysis books. Lots of the methods originated in the private sector anyway. And if you’d like to take a step back, browse my reading list for a more comprehensive selection of books on how to think for yourself.

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